The novelist, poet, performer and playwright Ntozake Shange, best known for her 1976 Obie-winning choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, died last Saturday at the age of 70. Shange had suffered from a series of strokes and was battling a severe neurological disorder, but no cause of death was announced.
Born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, Shange won a Pushcart Prize for her poetry in addition to her Obie, and received Guggenheim and Lillian Wallace-Reader’s Digest fellowships as well. Her portfolio of plays includes Daddy Says, Spell # 7, From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story and A Photograph: Lovers in Motion. She authored several books of poetry, including Three Pieces, which won the Los Angeles Times’ Book Prize in 1981, multiple children’s book, and The Black Book, upon which she collaborated with Robert Mapplethorpe.
She also collaborated with her sister, Ifa Bayeza, on the novel Some Sing, Some Cry, which is about seven generations of the Mayfields, an African American family, from the beginning of emancipation until the present day. In a mixed review, Kaiama L. Glover of the New York Times called the story “engaging from start to finish.”
But it was for colored girls which brought Shange into the public consciousness, and kept her there. For colored girls is a collection of twenty poems, choreographed and interconnected by music, from seven African-American women who have been oppressed but not broken by racism and sexism. The characters are identified only by the colors they wear. For colored girls is only the second play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was the first); in the initial Broadway production, Shange herself played the Lady in Orange.
For colored girls looked intently, and critically, at the experience of Black women at the hands of men, and faced abortion, rape, and general male violence without blinking. This promoted a heated response from some critics, who claimed that the play demonized African American men and thus provided moral support to white racism. However, most critical reception was positive, and the play has been performed many times since then, including in 2016 at Theater Alliance. In 2010, Tyler Perry filmed a version of the play (under the title For Colored Girls) which won critical acclaim and performed well at the box office.
Shange (whose adopted name means, in Xhosi, “She who comes into her own things, and walks like a lion”) is survived by Bayeza, her sister Bisa Williams, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Niger between 2010 and 2013, her brother Paul Williams, Jr., the Executive Director of the New York Board of the Dormitory Authority, her daughter, Savannah Shange, a professor of anthropology at the University of Santa Cruz, and a granddaughter.
Our tribute – Voices of the rainbow raised in praise … can be found here.